Chopping and changing: what the lectionary does to the parables of Matthew

This is the third week that the Revised Common Lectionary has provided us with parables, chosen from chapter 13 in Matthew’s book of origins. This chapter is the third of five “blocks of teaching” in this account of Jesus—blocks where originally disparate elements are brought together on a thematic basis, to form the “five discourses of Jesus” (chapters 5-7, 10, 13, 18, and 23-25). Many interpreters repeat the claim that these five discourses stand as an intentional complement to the “five Books of Moses” in Hebrew Scripture.

This particular chapter, I believe, was based on the earlier collection of parables found in chapter 4 of Mark’s “beginning of the good news about Jesus”, the key source for the works that Matthew and also Luke utilised (along with other hypothetical sources). There are three parables in Mark’s chapter: the seeds and the sower (4:3-9), the seed sown in secret (4:26-29), and the mustard seed (4:30-32). Of those, the first and the third are picked up by Matthew. The second, some interpreters believe, has been explicitly modified by Matthew to form the parable of the wheat and the weeds (about which see https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/ and also https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/09/parables-the-craft-of-storytelling-in-the-book-of-origins-matt-13/)

Matthew has expanded this source of three parables, to seven parables, adding parables about the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). What each of these parables have in common are their opening phrases “the kingdom of heaven is like …”, and their simplicity of form. All five of them are short and succinct, making their point without any expansion or extrapolation.

We see, week after week, that Matthew edits the sources that he uses. We can see this quite evidently with regard to Mark, where we have the source material to compare with Matthew’s redactional enterprise. If we compare the places where Luke includes material in common with Matthew (the Q material), we can explore hypotheses about what one, or the other, of these editors seems to have done with that common material. (We have no point of comparison for the other material, drawn form the “special M” source, as we have no specific evidence that it existed, let alone any wording of that hypothetical source.)

Comparing Mark’s beginning of the good news with Matthew’s book of origins, we find the editorial impact of Matthew to be strong. Material is expanded, contracted, revised, put into a different order, sometimes modified almost beyond recognition. (The parable of the wheat and the weeds, compared with the parable of the seed sown secretly, might be such an instance.)

In relation to the parables, we see that Matthew expands Mark in significant ways—possibly modifying Mark’s second parable (13:24-30), adding three parables (13:33, 44, 45-46) to the third in Mark’s collection, and offering a concluding commentary on the significance of these parables (13:52). As a trade-off, he has omitted the brief lecture found in Mark 4:21-25, concerning the lamp under the bushel or on the lampstand—a teaching that may itself have elements of a parabolic form.

However, Matthew deliberately keeps the discussion of the relationship between the parables being offered, and the Hebrew Scriptures. Mark had Jesus reflect on this (4:10-12) and explicitly relate parables to the prophecy of Isaiah, that to outsiders who look, they will not perceive, or listen, but not understand (Isa 6:9-10). This prophetic “explanation” appears to justify the drawing of a strict boundary between insiders who understand, and outsiders who are destined not to comprehend. A difficult theological claim, but one that is central to Mark.

Matthew retains this (13:13-15) and strengthens the sense of insider/outsider, both in the assertions that come before (13:10-12) and in the blessing that follows (13:16-17). This remains important for Matthew. And he undergirds it with a distinctive blessing of the disciples with whom has is speaking (13:16).

But—and here is the curiosity—the Revised Common Lectionary does not include any of these verses. They are omitted from the Gospel selection in that lectionary. So, two weeks ago, following the directives of the lectionary, readers of the Gospel would jump from the parable (13:1-9) straight to the interpretation (13:18-23), omitting the intervening verses (13:10-17) that, as we have just noted, were so significant for Matthew—and for Mark, his source at this point.

And last week, the same thing happened, as readers of the Gospel who followed the lectionary prescriptions would jump from the parable (13:24-30) to its interpretation (13:36-43), leapfrogging the second consideration of the purpose of parables, which Matthew alone includes in his account (13:34-35).

And this explanatory section, like the earlier one, reaches back into Hebrew Scripture to provide another explanation of the purpose of parables (Psalm 78:2). According to this scripture, parables enable Jesus to “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world” (13:35).

Today, the same thing occurs. The lectionary offers us five parables, all quite short, and none with a separate interpretation: the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). And once again, we jump over a block of text (in this case, the interpretation of the wheat and the weeds, 13:36-43).

So for the third week in a row, the lectionary has edited the text for reading, recasting it by removing it from the narrative context in which Matthew places it. I think we need a “hermeneutic of suspicion” with regard to the lectionary, at this point (and, indeed, at many other points throughout the three year cycle of texts).

Each one of these five parables is short and to the point. Each one is offered without interpretation. What do we make of each parable, heard in its own right, without any editorial gloss? That, at least, is the gift that the lectionary offers us this week.

To the parable of the mustard seed, a story about the potency of a tiny, seemingly insignificant, item, there is added the parable of the yeast; also a small, almost invisible, element, which when added into flour performs an amazingly powerful task, transforming the flour into a risen dough fit for baking.

And then, after the second scripture citation, two more short parables are offered, this time focusing on the great value, the immense significance, of two tiny and perhaps quite hidden elements: some treasure hidden in a field, and a pearl of great value nestling amongst many other commonplace pearls.

This is what the kingdom is like: small yet amazingly potent, hidden yet incredibly valuable.

Finally, to the parable of the wheat and the weeds, a story which points to the inexorable nature of God’s exercise of justice, there is added a final short parable which also underlines this message of divine judgement. The net is used to draw up baskets full of fish; but the task of the person fishing is to discriminate between the good fish and the bad fish—just as the person reaping the harvest must discriminate between good wheat and bad weeds.

So the focus is clear. The kingdom, valuable and powerful, will be the reason for sifting between good and bad. The good will enjoy “the kingdom of their Father” (13:43). The bad will be condemned to “the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:43, 50; see also 22:13, 24:51, 25:30).

“Have you understood all this?”, Jesus asked the disciples after he had related all seven of these parables (13:51). They replied, with confidence, “Yes”. But did they???

Darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth: the scene of judgement (Matt 22)

Come to the banquet, there’s a place for you … sit you down, be fed and blessed … in your strength or in your weakness, you are welcome: come!

I always enjoyed singing that song, back in the days when we were able to sing when we gathered together for worship. It came to mind as I thought about the parable of the banquet that appears in the Lectionary, as the Gospel reading, this coming Sunday (Matt 22:1-14).

And the story that Jesus tells has wonderful moments of blessing–especially for those who didn’t receive an invitation to the banquet in the initial round of invitations. These people, “both good and bad”, invited in to the banquet hall direct from their business on the streets, were able to share in the largesse of the king (22:9-10). Is it a parable that points to the gracious welcome of God, as all manner of people come into the kingdom?

The very fact that there were, not one, not even two, but three rounds of invitations, underlines this point, surely? The king (presumably a symbol for God) really wants people to take part in this celebratory feast! And even the behaviour of those who decline the invitation might be explained in some reasonable way–the farm needs attending to, the business won’t look after itself (22:5), so their declining the invitation is understandable.

Although, it might be noted that declining the invitation was a breach of the honour-shame code which was dominant in the culture of the time. Reciprocity in relationships and dependence on a wealthy patron would surely have mandated accepting the invitation, one would have thought.

Indeed, the story that Jesus tells doesn’t necessarily lead to the result of blessing for all who come. Indeed, this parable is wracked by tragedy: as many in the first two rounds of people invited to the banquet decline the invitation, some of them mistreat and kill the messengers (22:6). This provokes a murderous retribution by the unhappy king, as he orders his troops to “destroy those murders and burn their city” (22:7). It sounds like yet another parable of judgement. (Matthew has quite a number of these parables–in case you hadn’t noticed!)

And, even when the guests are all present in the banquet hall, the king remains unhappy. Displeased at the lack of appropriate attire seen on one person, he gives the unfortunate guest a tongue lashing (22:12), and orders that a vicious punishment be enacted (22:13).

The parable and ancient customs

It had started off in the typical life-like setting of many of the parables: a scene known to the people to whom Jesus was speaking–or, at least, envisaged in realistic ways by them, even if they had not personally experienced such a scene. It sounded plausible, like it really could be happening.

There’s a wealthy king, a fine banquet, a hall filled with guests, tables laden with an abundance of food. A scene that the more wealthy would have experienced, and that the poorer would perhaps often have dreamed of. Jesus was a master at telling such tales; he knew how to draw people in and engage them fully in the scene.

In many ways, this parables reflects the code of behaviour ingrained in the culture. Meals were locations of intricate and complex rituals which set the patterns of behaviour required. There were expectations of rituals to be followed at the door, as guests arrive and wash their feet (see Gen 18:4, 19:1-2, 24:32; Luke 7:38).

There were rituals in greeting one another, following the prescribed sequence of blessing appropriate for the occasion and for the status of the people involved (amongst numerous examples in Hebrew Scripture, see Gen 18:2, 29:13, 43:27; Ruth 2:4).

There were rituals relating to the seating arrangements, which followed very strictly the hierarchy of status amongst those present (as Gen 43:33 and Prov 25:6-7 each indicate). Once seated, there were rituals relating to the food that was to be served and the order by which it was served to people, once again following the status hierarchy.

And, it would seem, there were rituals relating to the desired form of dress when attending a celebratory wedding banquet (perhaps Eccles. 9:8 is relevant; and maybe Rev 3:5 offers a glimpse of this?). Such rituals were expected to be kept with scrupulous care.

But one guest has breached protocol (22:11). It is precisely when the king pronounces the sentence on the guest who had not donned the prescribed wedding robe (22:12-14), that the parable blurs. The very end of the parable snaps out of the “realistic imaginary scene” that had been painted up to this point. The guest is not wearing his white robe. The guest is not “clothed with righteousness”.

The parable and aspects of judgement

The carnage from the aggressive interaction between the king, his messengers, the reluctant people of the town, and the murderous troops sent by the king (22:3-7), is bad enough. That might well be connected with the behaviour of arrogant, powerful men, who then (as now) ruled the world through the power of their armies; who even ordered the destruction of cities in enemy territory. That still has a ring of realism about it.

However, right at the end of the parable, the words of judgement and punishment that come from the mouth of the king plunges the story right into the midst of the hell-fire and brimstone, judgement and punishment rhetoric, that characterises the distinctive figure of Jesus who is centre-stage in the book of origins, the account of Jesus that we attribute to Matthew.

We have stepped out of the “parable scene”, and into the world of “eternal judgement”. We are no longer listening to Jesus the teller of enticing tales, but Jesus the fiery preacher of apocalyptic doom.

The instruction to “throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (22:14), recalls earlier pronouncements by Jesus in this book of origins: in his words of judgement spoken in Capernaum, where he encounters a distressed centurion (8:12), in his explanation of the parable of the weeds and the wheat (13:42), in the parable of the good and bad fish (13:50).

It is found also in subsequent pronouncements: to his disciples during his final apocalyptic teachings (24:51), and in the climactic parable of the sheep and the goats (25:30). In each case, darkness, weeping, and gnashing of teeth are threatened.

The vision that is depicted in this parable of Jesus is hardly an irenic, thoroughly enjoyable scenario. This is the way that “the heavenly banquet” is often depicted in Hebrew Scriptures–see Isaiah 25:6-7, 55:1-5, 65:17-25; Psalm 36:7-9; Proverbs 9:1-6. Not so, however, in this parable.

Along with those entering the kingdom in joy, there are those debarred from the kingdom, excluded with wrath, destined to endure severe punishment. The king who reigns in this realm exercises definitive judgement and imposes a decisive punishment (Matt 22:13). This is fear-inducing stuff.

Signs of Matthew’s hand in the parable

There are clear signs that Matthew’s hand has been at work throughout this parable, reshaping the story which Jesus told. The phrases found in the ending are one clear sign. Another sign comes from the kind of comparative analysis that we can do, when we compare this version of the parable with two other versions, known to us in literature of the time.

The Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus told this parable (Luke 14:15-24); this version is located in quite a different context, where the focus is on “seeking the lost” (Luke 14:12-14 and 15:1-32). In Matthew, the context is one of judgement and punishment, as is clear in the way the preceding parable ends (Matt 21:42-46). And the Gospel of Thomas also has a version of this parable, one of the teachings of Jesus found in that work (Gos. Thomas 64). Of course, in the Gospel of Thomas, there is no narrative context; the work is comprised of a long string of independent sayings of Jesus.

The host of the banquet in both those alternative versions (Luke and Thomas) was simply “a man”, not a king. That man had “a servant”, not a whole collection of slaves. The invitation was simply to “a dinner” (Thomas) or “a great dinner” (Luke), rather than to “a wedding banquet for his son”. Matthew has really ramped up the setting, placing the story in a very regal setting.

Whilst those unable to attend sent explanations (they are the same in Luke and Thomas), in Matthew’s version “they made light of it”. And the murderous rampage by the king is not found in either alternate version (Luke or Thomas). The whole scene has been ramped up to the highest possible level in Matthew’s version. Everything hangs on what transpires in the story. While the parable in Luke ends with a scene of inclusive celebration, in Matthew the parable ends with savage judgement.

Back to the theme of judgement in Matthew’s Gospel

This outcome of judgement is a recurring theme in the Gospel of Matthew. And this is the challenge for us, today, as we reflect on the version of the parable found in this Gospel. What do we make of a story that points to the inevitable judgement that God will exercise?

It is clear that the function of judgement belongs to God (7:1-2; 10:15; 11:21-24; 12:36). Jesus sets this into the eschatological framework of “the end of time”, when the Son of Man will implement this judgement (13:41; 16:27-28; 19:28; 24:29-31; 25:31).

This judgement is described in graphic terms in the final parable of Jesus in this Gospel (25:31-46). The division of people, at this moment of judgement, into “good and bad”, “sheep and goats”, is made abundantly clear. Those failing to show compassion to “the least” are clearly differentiated from those who are called “the righteous”.

That division has run through the Gospel. We see people distinguished as “evil and good” (5:45; 12:35; 22:10), we see “good trees” and “bad trees” (7:15-19; 12:33), “good seed” and “weeds” (13:24-25, 37-38), “good fish” and “bad fish” (13:47-48).

The Jesus who is presented in this Gospel is a fearful and demanding figure. In his capacity as God’s Messiah, he frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28–30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come unless righteousness is followed in the present.

So the kingdom of heaven will be established “at the end of the age”, when the final judgement of righteous and unrighteous will take place (13:39–40, 49; 24:3). The key connection here must be with the demand for righteous-justice, which has been the central demand of the message preached by Jesus throughout this Gospel, from the early affirmations (3:15; 5:6, 10; 5:20; 6:33), through the parables in chapter 13 (see 13:17, 43, 49), through to the climactic final parable (25:37, 46). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/02/06/an-excess-of-righteous-justice-matt-5/

Judgement is linked to doing what makes for righteous-justice. Here is the key criteria for divine assessment. The man cast out of the wedding banquet was rejected because he was not “clothed in righteous-justice”.

Here is the central call for ethical living from the lips of Jesus, which strengthened and intensified throughout Matthew’s account. Here is the fundamental worldview of the fierce apocalyptic prophet, who comes from Nazareth onto the world stage, to effect judgement.

Now that is a challenge to preach today!!

Let anyone with ears, hear! (Matt 13)

Jesus used parables as the chief means of his story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are conundrums. They contain unresolved tensions. They invite multiple understandings. They press for exploration and investigation. We have another parable in the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday!

The accounts of Jesus that we have in scripture—Mark’s beginning of the good news of Jesus, Matthew’s book of origins of Jesus, Chosen One, and Luke’s orderly account of the things fulfilled—each contain a number of parables. Even in John’s book of signs, there are some parable-like sections, buried in the midst of the long discourses that this book contains.

This week, the lectionary offers the second parable in Matt 13. Last week, we had the parable of the seeds and the sower (13:3-9) and its interpretation (13:18-23). This week, we will hear the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30) and its interpretation (13:36-43). Then in the following week, we will hear the other five parables in this chapter: the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48)—each one offered without interpretation.

As with last week, so also this week we are given a parable, followed immediately by an interpretation of the parable. I had a spout last week about the way that a later allegorising understanding of the parable has been placed on the lips of Jesus, in this Gospel account. You can read that at https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/09/parables-the-craft-of-storytelling-in-the-book-of-origins-matt-13/

I don’t believe that Jesus would have spoken the words in this interpretation (13:26-43). I think it is a later addition from a tradition that found it hard to leave the parable standing in its own right. Somebody, somewhere, wanted to offer a definitive reading. The same thing happened last week, as the parable of the seeds and the sower was interpreted in a certain way (13:18-23). It has happened again this week, in relation to the parable of the weeds and the wheat (13:24-30).

In the parable itself, there is a simple contrast drawn between the weeds and the wheat. That is typical of parables that Jesus told. A number of these parables were short and direct, making a single point and needing little explanation: see the parables of the treasure (13:44) and the pearl (13:45), for instance. This made the parable easy to remember and repeat orally.

These parables are little more than an introduction (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”) and a single image which is used to describe a characteristic of the kingdom (hidden treasure, or fine pearls). The first part of this week’s parable (13:24-26) has this form. It is short and direct.

It starts with the classic introduction, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to …”. It goes on to tell of the good seeds, which grow into wheat, and the bad seeds, which grow into weeds. This part of the parable has a simple contrasting form, like the parable of the good fish and the bad fish caught in the net, as told in the last of the seven parables (13:47-48).

But the parable has a story attached to these weeds among the wheat (13:27-30). So Jesus continues with a little plot development, which brings in a reflection on the human characters who sowed the seeds. In this regard, this is like other parables of Jesus, which are a little more developed; they still make a single point, but it is developed or explained a little more.

The parable of the mustard seed (13:31–32) is a good example of this. This parable uses the same introductory phrase and conveys its main point in an image (mustard seed, 13:31) which is further developed to convey what happens to the mustard seed as it grows and forms “the greatest of shrubs” (13:32).

So the plot of the parable of the wheat and the weeds continues until the punchline is reached. It is not during the growing that any distinction is to be made; it is at the harvest that this distinction is enforced. Wheat that grew from good seeds is to be collected and stored; weeds that grew from bad seeds are to be bundled and burnt (13:28-30).

That much, as a parable, has a clear message: don’t intervene into the process of growing, don’t judge (recalling 7:1), but let the end result of the process of growing be the moment when the judgement occurs. And that taps into a strong interest, throughout the book of origins, for depicting Jesus as the preacher of judgement.

Consistently throughout the book of origins, Jesus is presented as a fearful and demanding figure. In his capacity as God’s Messiah, he frequently promises (or threatens) judgement (5:21–26; 7:1–2; 10:15; 11:21–24; 12:36–37; 19:28– 30; 21:33–44; 22:1–14; 24:29–31, 36-44, 45–51; 25:1–13, 14–30, 31–46; 26:64). Many of these declarations occur in eschatological contexts, where Jesus is warning about the punishment that is to come at “the end of time”, unless righteous-justice is followed in the present.

In the previous chapter, a quotation from the prophet Isaiah (Isa 42:1-4, at Matt 12:15–21) includes an extended quotation from Isaiah 42, where the servant of the Lord proclaims judgement to the Gentiles and they are said to have hope in his name (presumably because they repent and believe him). This is the function that Jesus, as God’s servant, the Chosen One, carries out. It’s not for us human beings to take on the role of judge. That belongs to God, carried out through his chosen agent, Jesus.

The parable of the wheat and the weeds has an intensity because of its focus and orientation towards this fearsome judgement, executed by Jesus in obedience to the desire of God. The interpretation of the parable defuses the intensity of the parable by fussing about what each element refers to: the Sower is the Son of Man, the good seeds are the children of the kingdom, the bad seeds are the children of the evil one, the enemy is the devil, and so on (13:39).

The interpretation ends with a repetition and expansion of the scene of judgement that ended the parable—but the good seed is not simply stored, it morphs into the righteous in the kingdom, and the bad seed is not burnt as seed, but it becomes the ones who disobeyed the law, burning in the furnace (13:41-43). And there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (13:42; see also 13:50; 22:14; 25:30). So the same punchline holds in this section, as in the parable itself.

Interestingly, the interpretation ends with the same punchline that concluded the parable of the seeds and the sower: “let anyone with ears, listen!” (13:53, cf. 13:9). Jesus continues to press the point. Judgement is inevitable.

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012)

Parables: the craft of storytelling in the book of origins (Matt 13)

This week, the Gospel passage comes from the book of origins, whose account of Jesus we have been following for much of this current year. The chapter we are reading contains the first of seven parables that Jesus tells. The parable of the seeds and the sower is told in Matt 13:3-9 and an interpretation is then offered at 13:18-23. This interpretation shapes and orients our understanding of what “the seed” means; it directs us to interpret “the seed” as “the word of the kingdom” (13:19).

This is the first of seven parables in this chapter, and one of twenty-four parables in the book of origins. Many of those parables are explicitly identified as parables of the kingdom. After all, the kingdom was the focus of the preaching of Jesus, as is signalled in his opening public proclamation earlier in the book (4:17). (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/23/repentance-for-the-kingdom-matt-4/)

The kingdom features in the Beatitudes (5:3, 10), the Sermon on the Mount (5:19-20, 6:10, 33, 7:21), and then in many of the teachings of Jesus (such as 8:11-12, 18:3-4, 19:14, 23-24).

Preaching the kingdom was central to the activities of Jesus (9:35) and his followers (10:7) and will remain a key focus until the time when “the end will come” (24:14). And parables formed an important contribution to the ways that Jesus spoke about the kingdom in his teachings.

In this chapter, after the parable of the seeds and the sower, we find another six parables: the weeds among the wheat (13:24-30), the mustard seed (13:31-32), the yeast in the flour (13:33), hidden treasure (13:44), a pearl of great value (13:45-46), and the net that caught fish (13:47-48). Interestingly, every key item in these seven parables is a small, even seemingly insignificant, item: seeds, seeds, yeast, a pearl, and fish.

Later in the Gospel, there are further parables of the kingdom: the labourers in the vineyard (20:1-16), the two sons (21:28-32), the wicked tenants (21:33-44), and the wedding banquet (22:2-14). In the final section of Jesus’s teaching the disciples, he tells three further parables of the kingdom: the ten bridesmaids (25:1-13), the talents (25:14-30), and the sheep and the goats (25:31-46).

1 Understanding Parables

What are we to make of these many parables? Parables were quite widespread in the society of Jesus’ day. They were evocative and effective means for telling stories. The most common means of entertainment in the ancient world was telling stories. This was done by word of mouth, from one person to another, or in small groups gathered in market places, courtyards or houses. Education also relied on the voice.

Written materials were costly and only a small percentage of the population was literate. The natural tendency to tell stories was widely accepted, so that the most familiar pattern was that learning took place through the passing on of stories. So oral story telling was commonplace in the synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and instruction.

We can see the dominance of the oral medium most clearly in the literature which tells about the rabbis of Judaism. The story was the foundational building block for all the rabbis’ teaching activities. Beyond Judaism, we see it in the popularity of written biographies, romances, histories and adventure stories, throughout the ancient world. Indeed, a second century Christian (Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis) is reported as having stated that stories spoken by teachers are to be preferred as more reliable than written works (such as the Gospels)—an attitude that sounds incredible to our modern ears!

A parable is an important type of story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are found in Jewish literature; the most famous examples in the Hebrew Bible are Samuel’s parable comparing David with a callous rich herdsman in 2 Samuel 12 and the prophet’s parable comparing Israel with an unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5.

Rabbis at the time of Jesus, and later, have used parables to make their point in their teachings. The Hebrew word for this form was mashal, a word meaning “to be like” or “a comparison”. Parables were told to make a point about something that may not be easily understood, by drawing a comparison with something else that was well-known or easily understood.

The mashal also opens up the possibility of a more developed form of comparison, the similitude, of which the best example is Nathan’s parable to David concerning the stolen lamb (2 Sam 12:1–4). This form flourishes in later Judaism, both in rabbinic literature, and in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). In fact, the parables told by Jesus follow the patterns and customs of the rabbinic mashal.

2 Understanding the Parable of the Seeds and the Sower

The specific parable that we hear in worship this Sunday, the parable of the seeds and the sower, is a particularly provocative parable. It leaves us with various questions. Why was the sower so extravagant in broadcasting the seeds, casting them not only onto fertile ground but also onto rocky ground and into the midst of thorns? Why did the sower not adopt good agricultural practice, culling the thorny plants as they grew, to enable the seeds to grow into healthy plants?

Other questions arise, as well, if we read the parable (13:3-9) without including the interpretation that is offered (13:18-23). That interpretation guides us to see the seeds as representing “the word of the kingdom”, and that understanding seems reasonably evident from the parable in its own right. But what does the path represent? And what about the thorns? And the rocky ground? Or the sun—is it a symbol of something?

The interpretation included in Matthew 13 closes down these questions. Many scholars believe that the interpretation did not actually come from the lips of Jesus, but, rather, was added by the author of the Gospel, drawing on interpretations that had developed over the intervening decades after the lifetime of Jesus. (This assumes, quite reasonably, that the Gospel was written some 30-50 years after the death of Jesus; and also, more controversially, perhaps, that the author was somewhat creative in reporting the actions and words of Jesus.)

One of the reasons for this view is that the interpretation really treats the parable as an allegory, rather than as a mashal-like parable. In an allegory, each and every character and event in the story is regarded as being a symbol for something else beyond the story.

Allegory literally means, “to say something other”; it comes from two Greek words, the verb agoreuo (to speak in the assembly), and the prefix allos (other). Allegories are found in ancient literature; in Greek, from the earliest literature, that of Homer, through to Plato, and on into the writings of people centuries after the time of Jesus. They were commonplace across Greek and Latin literature.

But not so, in Hebrew Scriptures, the tradition from which Jesus regularly drew. Here, there are more often parables, only rarely any fully-developed allegory. And parables are not allegories. A parable is a mashal—a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. And the single point of a parable is given in its punchline: which, in this case, is the enigmatic, “let anyone with ears, hear!” (13:9). If the seed is the word, the demand of this parable is clear: listen!

And yet, as the verses that follow make clear (13:10-17), understanding a parable is a tricky business. Its meaning is not self-evident. As Jesus speaks in parables, “seeing, they do not perceive, and hearing, they do not listen” (13:13, quoting directly from Isaiah 6:9-10). Parables are conundrums. They contain unresolved tensions. They invite multiple understandings. They press for exploration and investigation.

The technique of a parable is not to lay everything out in plain form, in straight-forward propositions—but rather to weave a story, to draw the listeners into the story, to invite wondering, to foster creative thinking and thoughtful grappling within the story. Nothing is set in stone. All sorts of possibilities arise, from the narrative of a story that is well-crafted and persuasively-presented. As we imagine that Jesus did in creating and telling his stories in parable form.

3 The Parable of the Seeds and the Sower in the Revised Common Lectionary

So the offering of the interpretation (13:18-23) immediately after the telling of the parable (13:1-9) that the Revised Common Lectionary offers (and that the author of the book of origins includes in this chapter) skews our approach to the parable. It closes off the possibilities of understanding. It limits the range of options for clearly comprehending what Jesus was offering. In my mind, it’s something of a menace.

So here’s the challenge: this Sunday, why not simply read the parable (13:1-9)—and then, STOP. Don’t read the interpretation (13:18-23). Let the parable stand in its own right. Invite your audience to imagine, explore, interpret. Encourage them with the sense that there is “no right answer”, or “no one interpretation”. Invite people to engage in the process that the very first followers of Jesus took part in: “let anyone with ears, listen!” And then invite them to respond. And rejoice in the richness and diversity of understandings that arise!

******

This blog draws on material in MESSIAH, MOUNTAINS, AND MISSION: an exploration of the Gospel for Year A, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2012).

For a gentle, poetic retelling of the parable from Sarah Agnew, see https://praythestory.blogspot.com/2020/07/falling-seeds.html?m=1

Consideration of issues raised in this blog continues in https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/14/let-anyone-with-ears-hear-matt-13/